At a Sundance Film Festival remarkable for its strong female perspective, Very Good Girls might be the most earnest and accessible of those films. It’s the coming-of-age story of two Brooklyn teenagers (Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen) who are determined to lose their virginity before the summer after their senior year of high school ends. They both fall for the same boy, but there are no hijinks; this is no distaff version of American Pie. “What I wanted more than anything was it to be a fly on the wall experience,” says writer-director Naomi Foner, who makes her directorial debut after a long career as a successful screenwriter (Running on Empty). “We’re there with these girls as these things happen. I wanted nothing more than for women of all ages to walk into it and to feel ‘Oh, yeah I remember that,’ or ‘I see that,’ or ‘I can do that.’ And have a model for themselves of some sort. And I didn’t want to do it in way that’s silly.”
If it had been sillier or crass, Foner might have had an easier time getting it made. She initially wrote the script 20 years ago, and nearly had a go-picture a few years back, but the financier flinched because the two actresses Foner had recruited weren’t big enough: Kristen Stewart and Jennifer Lawrence. “At the time, no one had ever heard of them,” says Foner. “The way you finance independent movies, you used to sell foreign territories, but they’re like 10 years behind. They didn’t know who they were. They want Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
Fanning and Olsen might not be Arnold Schwarzenegger, but they’re just what Foner’s story requires. “They are the embodiment of what I wanted these girls to be,” says Foner. “These characters are idiosyncratic, very specific people who are really searching, and these [actresses] understand all of that.”
Joining Foner, they also link a triumvirate of Hollywood dynasties. (Foner’s children are Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal.) Olsen, 23, has been a Sundance favorite since starring in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Fanning, 18, has gracefully transitioned from precocious child-star into a mature, articulate young woman. Olsen first met Foner, who’s sort of an unofficial den mother at the Sundance Institute, at the 2011 festival. “I gravitated towards her because she has this amazing maternal wisdom,” says Olsen. “And when Martha was at Sundance, she prophesized about my future — ‘Buckle your seat belts; this is going to change your life” — and there was a comfort and trust there because of her own two children.”
Both actresses have also sidestepped the pitfalls that have entangled some of their young Hollywood peers, a fact that doesn’t seem to be an accident. “The only thing that this business is about for me is me doing movies,” says Fanning, who will next be seen as Effie Gray opposite Emma Thompson in Effie. “Nothing else drives me to do what I do other than the pure need to do it. So that has kept me totally sane. But I also think people are so quick to judge young actors, they’re so quick to criticize you for what you’re wearing to the grocery store. Who wouldn’t go crazy at that? Some people are not wired to have skin so thick, you know? But because I’m aware of all that, I try and remove myself from those situations as much as possible. When I’m not working, I just live my life in a way that’s honest and authentic and true. I do my best with that.”
Olsen is five years older than Fanning, but the two women are close — both went to the same California high school and attend New York University — Olsen graduates this week. Olsen has already finished Spike Lee’s American remake of Oldboy — “No one should go into it thinking it’s a remake,” she says. “It’s a total reimagining with the same essence.” — and Fanning is reportedly set to play Kevin Kline’s teen lover in The Last Days of Robin Hood. “There’s a big difference between an actor and a movie star, and both Lizzie and Dakota seem to be committed to being actors,” says Foner. “They’re choosing their parts for the right reasons and they’re exploring things.They’re taking risks and chances and doing all kinds of wonderful things.”
They are more than just very good girls.